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CHILE: Government recalibrates Covid-19 response

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The beginnings of a new Covid-19 strategy are becoming apparent as the government grapples with a rising case count. As of yesterday, 17 June, 4,757 new cases and 232 deaths were reported. With the addition of 31,412 cases now attributed to Covid-19 but previously not counted in the official tally, the total case count has reached 220,181, meaning that Chile has among the highest number of Covid-19 cases per capita in the world. Some of the change in strategy predates the arrival of new Health Minister Enrique Paris on 13 June, though the departure of Jaime Manalich and the parallel agreement for a new basic emergency income (IFE) package last weekend have helped drive the new approach.

In the first instance, Paris has led a change in tone from his controversial predecessor. The new minister is at pains to demonstrate a new openness to sometime critics of government policy; has continued methodological revisions; and has met the highly-regarded head of the country’s medical union (Colegio Medico), which is urging the government to boost its test and trace capabilities. Testing rates are relatively high but remain insufficient, while test results are too slow. Meanwhile, the use of cellphone location data to observe quarantine compliance is now under consideration.

The lower house of Congress yesterday, 17 June, approved stricter penalties for those who break quarantine rules, including larger fines and longer prison sentences for the most serious infractions. At the same time, the number of times residents of areas under stricter quarantines can leave home to carry out essential activities (e.g. shopping for groceries) is being reduced. The police and military are already carrying out around 30,000 daily checks in the Santiago Metropolitan Area (RM), much of which is under quarantine.

There are at least two issues with stricter enforcement measures. First, an administrative route could prove a more effective solution than policing. A reduction in the number of people holding dispensations because they are engaged in “essential activities” could be an option; around 1.5mn people (out of approximately 9mn currently under quarantine conditions) possess exemptions. Second, there are authoritarian overtones to a stricter approach that do not sit well in the Chilean context. The Broad Front (FA)’s opposition to tougher penalties points to how politically delicate the issue is; the high-profile FA deputy Gabriel Boric has accused the government of “criminalizing poverty.”

In parallel, and partly to counter the Boric line of attack, a bill to recalibrate the IFE also passed in the lower house; the Senate should follow suit today, 18 June. The urgency with which the matter is being handled is an indicator of how important the roll-out of the basic emergency income is to ensuring quarantines have the intended effect – without an income, people reliant on daywork and who have little or nothing in the way of savings have no choice but to go out to work. The challenge will be to ensure the IFE reaches as far and as wide as it possibly can.

The next three to four weeks will be a crucial test of whether the new approach can help flatten the curve of infections. From 19 June, a further five communes will enter quarantine conditions, bringing the total number of communes under quarantine to 55, accounting for some 9.7mn people, the highest number since the outbreak started.

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